Asia | South East Asia | Malaysia – The Jungle Highlands
Well Ive made to within spitting distance of the Thai border. Im in the capital of Kelantan province, Kota Bharu.
The last 5 days have been spectacular, a total contrast from my initial ride up the east coast. After leaving Kuantan I headed inland and the terrain quickly changed from regimental palm plantations to wild verdant jungle. The wind that had been causing me so much strife previously all but disappeared. All in all it was a pleasure to cycle; less traffic, less heat, more shade; ideal.
The first day after making good progress I pulled over at a roadside cafe for my morning pit stop. This ended well over an hour later after I got into a discussion with a couple of young girls who quizzed me about everything I had done and was going to do. Linda & Watie were very interested in everything, having never been to Kuala Lumpur let alone Singapore they sat there for ages just looking at the maps of the region.
Luckily they quizzed me rather than vice versa, the biggest frustration I have at the moment is my limited grasp of the Malay language.
Every time I stop the locals question me and I really cannot say anything of substance to them. It is not that I dont want to learn, more that I have limited access to Malay/English dictionaries. The only resource I have is the back of my Lonely Plant SE Asia guidebook. Malay takes up just over a page squished in between Laos and Myanmar.
There is enough in there to order some food, get the price for a room but beyond that I am a little stuck. Even what I have tried to learn and write down from people I have met is limited. Malay is not a complicated language; at least it uses the western alphaabet. But I have had trouble with even the simple greeting; an essential for any self-respecting traveler is the ability to sat hello.
For a cyclist a speedy welcome is also equally essential and this is where the problem starts. I know (and can usually say at the correct time of day) Good morning (Selamet Pagi), Good Day; [around midday] (Selamet Tenagh Hari), Good Afternoon (Selamet Petang), and Good Night (Selamet Malan) but these are a bit of a mouthful and nobody has been able to tell me a simple mono-syllabic hello. All I want is howdy, a hi, a salut, a hola or a ciao but to no avail. Anything longer gets lost in the wind when cycling past roadside wavers at 15mph. Its too late to find out now I just need to ensure I get a better understanding in the other countries I visit.
After I left Linda & Watie I headed west my aim was to stop at a town just off the main highway but they had no hotel so I stocked up on peanut butter, tuna and bread and headed off on a minor road north. Luckily it was still very early and I had plenty of time to get a few miles under my belt then find somewhere to camp.
Luckily with about 1 hour of daylight left I came upon an almost picture perfect location. Although only a few feet beneath the road it was right next to a river, I bathed in the fast flowing waters, my only companion, water buffalo cooling themselves off further down stream. I had views of the distant mountains and as night fell the noise of the jungle really took over. Amazing, a symphony of sounds from insects of every kind to birds and monkeys and other howlings I didnt want to know from what.
Cars were few and far between, I felt completely alone. I was woken by something about 2:30am. I never did find out from what. My initial thought was human contact but if there was such thing as a bad Malaysian after a week in the country I had not come across any hint of them, in addition even if I was just about to be robbed blind its unlikely that anybody would bother waiting to 2:30 to do it. My next thought were the water buffalo on the other bank, again unlikely, I was pretty sure the bank was too steep this side and besides I would have heard them well before they got anywhere near trampling me in my tent. I can only assume it was some canine or rodent just checking out the area, I didnt get out and look as it was cold and I decided knowing exactly what was outside was not going to do me any favors..
After this brief interlude I slept till dawn, the only issue was being greeted by an army of ants who seemed to be in line ready to jump into my tent the minute I opened the door. Once they were speedily if not too humanely extinguished I was on my way again. My plan for the day was to pick up a train from the town of Jerantut and take it a couple of stops to Kuala Lipis. The railway line went straight through the jungle whereas the road went around. It would cut off 100km and give me a chance to take the jungle train as tourists romantically call it.
I am not sure exactly what time the once-a-day train was supposed to leave the town; the guidebook said 11:50am, the rail networks internet site said 12:50, The ticket I ultimately purchased said 10:20am but by luck more than judgment I arrived at the station at 11:55 and the train arrived at 11:57
An hour later I was in the old colonial capital of the region, Kuala Lipis. A pleasant town as the guidebook said, not too much to do also as the guidebook said, it was nice just to walk around the market trying the local produce. I did have a chat with what I can assume was the local drunk (every town has gotta have one). It seemed his job, or what he believed to be his job, was to help the buses navigate into their parking spots. He told me he had been in the British army for 7 years, but we didnt get any further in our discussion, as he had to help a bus driver back into a motor scooter.
From here it was 300km to where I am today. The road went through the jungle and after a little bit of prior research the general consensus was that it was a minor road and very hilly, although paved. I was therefore prepared for some hard cycling and some more camping out if I couldnt find any towns along the way with accommodation.
As I didnt orignally cycle into the town my points of reference were not a good as usual and I set off on the wrong road, after a few miles I asked a local and he seemed to intimate this way would take me where I wanted to go. As it turned out after an hour of early morning cycling up and down some steep steep hills the road just serviced a bunch of villages and rejoined highway 8, my route for the next 3 days. My initial fear was that this road would loop back towards the town and I would have spent an hour going nowhere, but luck was again on my side, my hilly route actually cut off 15km rather than add it, amazing. What with the train turning up on call the day before I was ready to go and buy a lottery ticket, I never get breaks like that, something was going on!
Now back on the correct road, I realized it was in fact quite a major road, (by Malaysian countryside standards) that meant regular feeding stations and a lot of locals.
I may have said it before but the Malays are one of the most friendly races I have come to meet. Everywhere I have been they wave, they honk and they wish me well. Ive had school kids line up by the side of the road and shout good day in unison, I have had boys on motorcycles ride alongside me for a few miles trying all the English they know. Its funny but if this had been England, you would be more likely to get calls of Oi mister! Your wheels going round and other such humorous quips rather than a Q&A session on where you where from. (Oh, what it was to be young in suburban Britain!).
The road was still up and down; I used my smallest gears for the first time. In fact the first time I used my smallest gears I managed to jam the chain between the frame and the crankset causing shavings of orange paint to fall like tears of blood from my beautiful bike (I could feel its pain). This meant breaking the chain untangling and rejoining, luckily I had the correct tools and they where convienently located in my tool bag (funny that!) under the seat. What was less lucky was the instructions on how to use the correct tools where somewhere else. I knew Id seen them but I had to unpack my entire bike to locate them only to find they told me nothing I didnt know already!
I was heading into Tama Negra national park, billed as the oldest forest in the world at 140 million years old or so. Im not sure how they know, I was kind of hoping to see a cross-section from one of the trees like you get in the Redwood forests or the Natural History museum showing the rings of the seasons but surprisingly no! Whatever the age of the forest the views where amazing I reached 70km an hour down one of the descents which made up slightly for the average 7km an hour on the ascent.
I rolled into this rather large jungle town that the German cartographers of my map had neglected to include. I found a hotel, being Saturday I went a bit up market so as to ensure a TV for the evening of English Football. Although I thought paying 3 times the price of the previous nights bed a little hard to stomach, even if it was only $12. However I got my own hot shower, air conditioning and the afore mentioned television for my money.
Other than a nail biting Derby vs Spurs match the need for a TV was so I could ensure a power socket in my room to charge up my camera. As some of you may notice I have been sending back pictures as well as words from my travels. How have I done this I know you have all been asking? Digital Camera, a Sony memory stick floppy disk adapter, a Sony floppy disk adapter driver and a selfish conviction that it is my right to crash every single computer in the internet cafe until I get my photos loaded, I answer! With a digital cameras the limiting factor of film is no more, however although I can store over 700 images on my camera I have now realized that the battery only has a 60-minute life. I was assured that would be plenty of power for up to 200 shots but one of the great things about these wonders of modern technology is that I can show people my photos on the LCD screen while I am traveling. It is great to tell people where you have been and then actually show them, I have a few shots of NY, my Ski trip before Singapore and locals love seeing all these places. It makes it much easier to then get a photo of them. Although it does burn up the power.
With another long day ahead I left at dawn the next morning. I had a goal of 130km through the same hilly terrain. Luckily the early mist stayed around for a few hours shielding me from the sun for most of the morning. As I left the national park the road leveled as it went alongside the railway track for the last 50km. I averaged 23kph, which was pretty good for the terrain and was in the shower by 3pm.
The final leg this morning was a fast a furious 60km into Kota Bahru, I was here by 10am ready to look around and prepare to cross the border tomorrow.
The first week or two in Thailand are going to be beaches. If everything goes to plan it should be 4 days to Krabi, a boat to Phuket then 5 days on a boat diving in the remote Similain Islands.